Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin addressed the turnover in city staffing levels and usage of the James M. Trotter Center on Wednesday in his first press conference since taking the oath of office July 1.
Gaskin said the city experiences the most staffing turnover within three departments: police, fire and public works. He said in recent weeks, the city has added additional workers to those departments, but none of these departments is fully staffed.
“Obviously our staffing is low in several formats,” he said. “We’ve mentioned the police department. We’re also very low in public works. Now whether the pandemic or anything has had a role in that, I really can’t say.”
City Chief Operations Officer Mark Alexander Jr. added that though the city does its best to hire people, employees often don’t stay long-term. He explained factors that may be affecting staffing levels.
“You know, some of that is certain positions — we don’t pay adequately in certain positions,” he said. “Some positions we do pay beyond what somebody would make for a common street position. Maybe, you know, we need to screen the people more. Or maybe it’s your job expectations; you’re not clear on the front end, et cetera.”
Alexander said public works is down 11 employees from full staffing level 62 workers. The department has hired seven workers this month.
Gaskin said he receives messages every day from citizens about a lack of pick-up of debris and limbs, some of which have been out there a long time.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s going to be the best process of helping public works to get caught up on that,” he said. “We’re looking into some ideas and ways that we can do to assist them, whether that be through outsourcing some of it or trying to work with the county. Of course, all those things like that have to be approved by the city council.”
Meanwhile, the police department has only 64 of its budgeted 68 officers, and Columbus Fire and Rescue currently employs 57 of its budgeted 68 personnel.
Gaskin stressed City Hall takes these staffing matters seriously.
“We’re trying to come up with some solutions to be very proactive because the chances of us being able to hire enough people in time to get caught up from where we are, it’s not realistic,” he said. “We obviously have a big problem out there and we’ve got to get a handle on it.”
In other matters, both Gaskin and Alexander spoke about the possibility of offering a reduced rental rate to nonprofits for Trotter Convention Center, rather than letting some rent the space for free.
During Tuesday’s city council meeting, the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce requested to use Trotter Center’s Regal Hall for a pilot partner program between the chamber and Columbus Air Force Base to welcome new Air Force personnel within their first month after relocating to the Friendly City. The chamber sought use of Regal Hall for Aug. 3 and Aug. 24. 205 Youth Outreach Program requested to use Trotter’s upper level for a program Oct. 3 for a children’s prom.
The council tabled the matter to create a policy regarding the usage of the Trotter Center by nonprofit groups.
Previously, there has been no formal policy, but nonprofit groups that receive city funding have also been allowed to book the Trotter for free.
“This is not us trying not to be cooperative with nonprofits,” Gaskin said. “Obviously we will and want to be. What this is, is being good stewards of our facility and our funding for the city.
“When we let someone use that for free, it’s not only the cost of having the lights and everything on the Trotter, it’s also paying personnel and paying for security,” he added. “So as you can see, as the city you can go into a kind of a deep hole in some of those areas. We need to do a thorough look at how the Trotter is handled and make a sound decision that’s supportive for the city and for the local nonprofits.”
City officials said renting the lower level at Trotter costs $485 and the upstairs costs $1,400 for events. That fee does not include part-time staff workers needed to assist the event nor security costs — $20 an hour for reserve police officers.
“Those are kind of low fees when you think about it for the size of Trotter and the expense the city has in upkeep, paying employees on top of that, so the fees are not excessive,” Gaskin said. “I would say that from my knowledge of it thus far, it’s kind of a bargain for people to use, but I want to compare that to what it’s costing the city to maintain and upkeep — that’s a pretty large facility.”